French far-right elder hostile to renaming party

AP News
Posted: Dec 02, 2014 12:29 PM
French far-right elder hostile to renaming party

PARIS (AP) — This is Marine Le Pen's moment. Re-elected to lead the far-right National Front party, France's rising political force, she is basking in the limelight, her eyes set on her dream job: to become president of France in 2017.

But something is amiss in the House of Le Pen.

The warm glow at the National Front's weekend congress masked underlying disputes within the family-run anti-immigration party. As Marine Le Pen works to scrub clean the image of the party, long regarded as a political pariah, the group is riven with rivalries over strategy and ideology.

On one side is Jean-Marie Le Pen, 86, Marine's father and the party's founder: a charismatic old lion of the extreme right with numerous court convictions for racism and anti-Semitism that he bears like battle wounds. On the other side is Marine, 46: the pragmatic mother of three teens working full-steam to make the party a voter-friendly political machine.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Jean-Marie Le Pen said talk among Marine Le Pen's supporters of possibly changing the party's name is "ridiculous" and labelled some potential new voters that his daughter has reached out to as "lukewarm."

Among other things, Marine Le Pen has marginalized the old guard while injecting young blood into the party's upper echelons, a point of contention for some. In a public spat between the father and daughter in June, Jean-Marie got temporarily banished from the party website over an anti-Semitic smear.

Under Marine Le Pen, at the helm since 2011, the party has campaigned for an end to Muslim immigration and withdrawal from the European Union and euro currency. Reaching out to less radical voters, she has removed from rallies the jackbooted skinheads that were regulars at the elder Le Pen's events.

The National Front is among the most visible of Europe's far-right parties, now on the rise, and has created links all the way to Russia. Present at the party congress were other European far-right leaders and two Russian parliamentarians.

The strategy of reaching out at home to new voters appears to be paying off: This year the National Front won local seats in 11 towns, as well as three parliamentary seats. It increased the number of seats it occupies in the European Parliament from three to 24 — more than any other French party. Recent polls have placed Le Pen as top candidate in the first round of a potential French presidential vote.

"We have let globalization sweep away our factories, our agriculture, our values, our way of life, our identity," Marine Le Pen told a cheering full house at the party congress. "The people are waiting for us."

Marine Le Pen is seeking to provide an alternative to the governing Socialist Party, crippled by the record unpopularity of its leading personality, President Francois Hollande, and the conservative UMP of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, torn to shreds by corruption allegations and infighting.

Publicly, the family, including the young blood of a new generation, has buried their differences in favor of party unity.

"Everyone in the National Front knows that to strengthen the (party) dynamic ... the party must absolutely present a united face," said leading extreme-right expert Jean-Yves Camus. "Everyone plays the unity card even if there are divergences."

"There is no fissure, no ideological fracture," Jean-Marie Le Pen told the AP. Yet, he himself lashed out at a proposal to change the party's name in order to help give it a new face. No new name has been floated.

"I am obviously very hostile. I find it laughable, ridiculous," he said. "It amounts to fooling voters about our real nature."

The real nature of the National Front may be a work in progress.

The elder Le Pen also frowns on a movement his daughter mounted to draw in those who might otherwise hesitate to vote for the far-right party, saying it is a place for them to "come in to warm up."

Despite the softer image of the National Front, its president maintains a staunchly anti-system stance, the distinguishing feature of the party, which considers the political mainstream "decadent." With the Socialists and conservative UMP party discredited by divisions and decades of failure to improve the economy, this is a message that resonates with more and more French voters.

"The political capital of the National Front is its radicalism," said sociologist and far-right specialist Sylvain Crepon. "If it (cleans up) too much, it becomes banal." National Front leaders, therefore, must "navigate between the two poles."

The party has for decades been a critical factor in French politics, thrusting immigration to the top of the mainstream right's agenda and playing kingmaker in elections. Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked the world when he made it to the runoff of the 2002 presidential vote.

Given the high political stakes, French media avidly follow the Le Pens, and even reported in October that father Le Pen's dog killed daughter Marine's cat — and claimed that in anger she pulled up stakes from the family domain.

Jean-Marie Le Pen confirmed the guard dog — not his own — did, indeed, kill his daughter's Bengalese cat when no one was home. But he said Marine Le Pen's relocation from a loft above the old stables to a property that "better corresponds to her new stature" was unrelated.

"I don't want to pass for a cat assassin," he said.

Still, Marine Le Pen may not have heard the last of her father, known for his quick, often bombastic, tongue.

"I'm a moral authority for the movement ... and I don't have the habit of keeping my opinions to myself," he said.